Josh Marino, an Army Veteran, is an education and outreach coordinator and a Veteran peer mentor at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), a joint project between the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the University of Pittsburgh. He counsels and mentors Veterans who take part in testing HERL’s projects, which include wheelchair technologies, advanced prostheses, and other innovative systems that improve the quality of life for people with disabilities like lost limbs and spinal injuries. He also oversees HERL’s internship program, which exposes science, technology, and engineering students to real-world concepts and challenges. He was originally recruited to participate in HERL’s ELeVATE program, which is designed to re-integrate Veterans into college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in social science and a master’s degree in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling at the University of Pittsburgh.
What motivated you to join the military?
Service to my community and country has always been a part of my life, and my family members have served in the armed forces. That sense of duty became even more important to me during my years in the Boy Scouts of America. As an Eagle Scout, I wanted to make a career out of serving my country.
What inspired your research career?
After I sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while serving in the Army and was later diagnosed with PTSD, I saw a glaring disconnect between the providers and those seeking treatment. Few, if any, providers had first-hand military experience comparable to [that of] their patients. Given my background, I saw this as a niche that I was meant to fill.
Did you have mentors who inspired you in life, the military, or your research career?
We all have those who pass through our lives at different times, influencing our decisions and our world view. I look back on my interactions with educators, leaders, friends, and family, and I see how much I carry myself based on the examples that they have set. Platoon sergeants and commanders whose faith in my abilities pushed me to excellence have taught me to lead with patience and trust. Scout leaders showed me how to remain considerate of others and their needs, and to act thoughtfully and purposely rather than impulsively. Academics who have spent their valuable time ensuring that I grasped complex concepts proved that due diligence is its own reward.
When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.
I joined the Army in May 2001 as a satellite communications systems operator and maintainer. My first duty station was a tactical post in South Korea. I loved being in South Korea so much that I extended my one-year tour to three years. That country has a beautiful culture, the friendliest people, and absolutely stunning sights. After that, I was placed at Fort Riley in Kansas with a unit that was in the early stages of formation but would soon be flagged as the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.
No matter what life throws at you, there’s always a means to adapt to the change and learn from it.
My unit deployed in early 2007 to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as part of the U.S.-led coalition’s surge in forces. My fellow soldiers and I maintained a brigade-level communications suite for the next 14 months. My duties rarely required me to leave the base. But in June 2007, I was walking on one side of a concrete wall when mortars from an enemy attack hit the other side. The wall protected me from most of the debris and shrapnel. But the concussive waves compressed and shook my brain. I was diagnosed with a concussion and shock. Later examinations would show a TBI with post-concussive migraines.
My initial shock from the event would later be diagnosed as PTSD, and my condition deteriorated to where I couldn’t perform my job as a communicator or as a leader. I was medically discharged in July 2009 due my combat injuries and resulting cognitive impairment. I moved back to Pittsburgh, where I had grown up.
What kinds of research are you involved in? How does it potentially impact Veterans?
We all wear many hats at HERL. In my work as an education and outreach coordinator, I’ve established and maintained great relations with many organizations from the greater Pittsburgh area. They include Veteran Service Organizations, the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Veteran Services, and Veteran support groups like PittVets and Operation StrongVet. In this role, I make sure to get educational information directly into the hands of those who need it most, including details on HERL internships and training sessions.
In addition, I’ve worked with many Veterans on navigating the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the Pittsburgh vocational rehabilitation offices. With HERL’s internship program in mind, I’ve published articles on making laboratories and machine shops more accessible to people who use mobility devices or have limited range of motion; on educating the next generation of researchers in the areas of advocacy, integration, and empowerment; and on counseling transitioning Veterans on educational and employment opportunities. I’ve also taken the ELeVATE program under my wing to ensure that it stays as stellar a program as it was when I went through it. I have some great memories and have achieved incredible accomplishments since I began working with HERL. But the one that stands out the most in my mind is a chapter about mental well-being that I helped author for the book “Promoting Successful Integration,” which offers a combination of real-life stories on resilience and solutions to the problems that many disabled Veterans face.
Did your military experience inspire you to pursue a career as a VA researcher? Is your military experience connected in some way to your VA research?
As I went through transition and therapy prior to my military separation, I couldn’t get past what I saw as a disconnect between the providers and the soldiers and Veterans. I saw an opportunity to use my listening and deliberative skills to fill that void, to be the provider that could relate to what the soldier is going through. I may not have been able to perform my duties as a leader and communicator in the military. But I still wanted to serve my country and fellow Veterans in some way.
Based on your life experiences to date, what do you believe are the keys to success? What motivational tips would you share?
No matter what life throws at you, there’s always a means to adapt to the change and learn from it. The perseverance to achieve in the face of adversity is something that we all possess. Sometimes, it just takes a helping hand to realize that.
To read more stories of VA researchers who are Vets, visit the VA Researchers Who Served series on the VA Research website.